From Paris To Provence – A Second Love Affair

You often fall in love with a person but sometimes it’s a place. I felt smitten with Avignon – a lovely urban town in the Provence region of France. Well, recalling my very first experience in the city didn’t do anything to evoke the love rather left us almost high and dry. We arrived by train and went around looking for public transport information to get to our hotel. Considerable sweating and scurrying around in the hot sun lead us to an unaware security guard who guided us to a wrong bus stop where we waited and waited but no bus arrived. After a frustrating hour or more we finally took a cab. So the well intentioned guard’s misinformation cost us 40 Euros where we should have reached in 8 Euros. But the ordeal was far from over.
Upon reaching the B&B in the town’s suburb, we were welcomed by a locked door. We rung the bell and hence began a faceless communication with the lady on the other side who asked for our hotel’s confirmation voucher number. On having provided it, she gave us a code to punch in the security key board which would let us in. However, upon typing the code, the security equipment lighted with the following message, “Access denied, Make Payment”. We looked dumbstruck at each other for a long moment then at the faceless communicator trying to explain that we had paid in full and the Reservation Voucher read the same. But she wouldn’t budge, as long as her system didn’t show it she wouldn’t unlock the door or let us in and so we sat there on our luggage fuming both physically and mentally trying to sort out the glitch. The guy at the booking website’s call centre thankfully confirmed that it was a fully paid reservation and kept us on hold for 15 whole minutes on an international call. This was insanely exasperating and irritating. We gritted our teeth in the scorching sun (yes it was as bad as in Chennai) till he rectified the technical anomaly in the system and sent the confirmation to the hotel. And the faceless lady finally agreed to give us another code which worked and the door clicked open. It wasn’t merely relief, it was a deliverance.
The opening scene in Avignon left me cantankerous but all that followed soon only deepened the affliction of the French romance. Fragrant Purple Earth is what remains etched in my mind. Gazing at those expanses of lavender fields took me to a land of antiquity where I, a peasant girl sauntered unbridled and amok in the French countryside carrying my parasol. The beautiful and imperial lavender is sometimes juxtaposed with vibrant green and at other places with golden swaying hay. It is one of the most magnificent sights to behold. And with a little rub between the palms the lavender buds exude the most sensational aroma. Inviting villages of Sault, Gordes, Rousillon beckoned us with their tamed rusticity but natural charm.  Unspoilt and elegant in appearance but bucolic at its heart is how I would define these little towns dotting the landscape of Provence with its gorgeous purple bounty.
After basking in the countryside and seeing, smelling, touching and tasting (lavender ice cream) lavender it was time to explore the city of Avignon the next day. And as we made our way to the city centre by evening, it was oozing with voltaic excitement.  The side cafes packed with people, the streets a live performing stage and the air just electric with energy and vibrancy. By sheer luck and chance, our travel plans coincided with Avignon’s Cultural and Theatre Festival. And for anybody who has the slightest interest in art will be over the moon to witness this absolutely rocking festival. It is a world renowned event where artists and spectators from around the globe come together to thrive in its glory.
As we were ambling along, I realized the main street had been almost cordoned off for performers and crowds. I cannot truly capture the essence of that sight in words though I am living it in my mind several times while writing this. I have personally never seen such a culmination of artistic effervescence. The entire area was a live stage with street artists and performances every few hundred meters. From hip hop to tango, from guitarists to avant gard instruments; from acrobatics to actors it was all happening right in the streets and by lanes of the city centre with crowds circling around each performance. A particular guitarist’s soulful music still resonates in my mind and his calm and joyous expression clearly showed how much he loved his work. There was another band called the Nomad Men who caught my fancy for more than one reason, of course there music was tantalizingly upbeat and foot tapping, but one of the instruments was so novel like a ten feet wooden saxophone and the whole band was setup so inventively on a refurbished bike not to forget the pair of drummers who were such a good looking sight! However, what surprised me was that almost every musician here had his own recorded CD which he was selling as well as using to promote himself. They are both involved and serious about their pursuit. Further down, there were pumping dance routines one after the other with escalating energy. The love affair that began in Paris overflowed in Avignon only this time the medium had changed.
Theatre is another huge aspect of this festival and though I couldn’t see any they all being in French and sold out, the glimpses of it were all around us. The actors market their play on the streets in a very characteristic style. With painted faces and elaborate costumes they are doing the rounds on the street in their character’s get up delivering catchy dialogues on the way. It is not only eye catching but very new and interesting. Classics, comedy, satire, drama it’s all there to entertain every mental palate. Performers gather from far flung places for the love of their work and of course opportunities to come in the public eye. They live frugal lives, almost depending on their patrons’ generosity, but they still love what they do and this simple fact makes every challenge worthwhile. They are basically proud of their choices. This sort of acceptance, love and joy in the pursuit of art seemed to me like a Sufi connection and some of them did appear like dervishes completely lost in the music and dance of their spirit.
Such sights made me question and wonder if it is alright in life to say enough. Is it okay to be happy with limited resources and avenues? Or is every human bound to strive for peaking progress and growth? A growth which the world can define and translate into countable units. Let me put it this way a musician who has the potential to become the next Lionel Richie but is content in playing by the street side, watching the world go by, while some in the crowd stand mesmerized and congratulate him. Is his chosen life an atrophy of his talents? Is he stunting his personal progress? A progress that in time might stunt the very joy from his music. Is it not a personal choice then than who are we to judge his aspirations and success by our personal barometer? The margin of error in being complacent and satisfied is rather very narrow. As long as a person still wakes up looking forward to his vocation or profession, derives joy from it and earns enough to lead a self reliant life I guess he is doing very well for himself.
What I also wonder is why we as a community and society in our country never encouraged a heartfelt alternative career quest. Potential artists forced into a rut which didn’t make sense to them or pushed blindly into an academic race they had no inclination to run? The movie ‘Tamasha’ rightly put it across. Most importantly why does it not register with us that some people choose not to run the race not because they are complacent, lazy or incompetent but simply the joy from their art or vocation is enough for them.  Thankfully there is eventually a visible shift in our mindset. There is a growing tribe of explorers and artists in all fields who are boldly breaking the stereotype and fighting the antagonism to find their footing in the academic loving society.
Drifting back to Avignon, well all I can say is that it was a celebration of intellectual, creative and artistic sensibilities revelled against the most picturesque purple fragrant lavender fields, a sight and experience that will stay with me for a long long time to come till I fall in love with another place.